The man wore a holey tee-shirt and a trucker hat over greasy hair. In one hand, he was talking on a cell phone the size of a child’s shoe. In the other, he was carrying a pigeon.
From across the street, Jen stared at the man. His hand was cupped around the bird’s underside as if carrying a baseball, his fingers buried in the green feathers of its chest. He swung his arm closer and closer to the shoe store so that, with every step, the pigeon’s head came perilously near the mirrored surface of the window. Jen tensed, wondering if she should say something, or stop the man somehow, even though traffic flowed between them.
Then the bird’s head cleared the pane of glass a final time and the man disappeared around the corner. She tightened her jacket around her shoulders and hurried to meet her friend.
The man must have caught the pigeon in the parking garage, she thought, where they nested in the rafters. Their droppings covered the stairwell in milky splats. No one ever cleaned it up. Whenever she parked there, she had to pick her way through the path in the center of the droppings, where the cement was shiny from so many shoes.
Her friend was waiting by the river, and together they walked to the restaurant. In front of the door, sitting on the ground, was the man. He was holding up the trucker hat for money and the pigeon was nowhere in sight.
“Spare any change?” he said.
Jen stopped. The man sounded exactly like her brother, Rob. More specifically, it was the version of Rob who used to drunk-dial her and leave slurred messages on her voice mail. Rob, who she hadn’t spoken to in years, not since she blocked his number.
This man had other similarities to her brother: dark brown hair, long limbs, alcoholic etchings in a sunburned face. She wouldn’t have noticed if he hadn’t spoken to her.
It wasn’t Rob though, she thought. She would recognize her own brother.
In the restaurant, she ordered a salad and a glass of Sancerre. Her friend talked about the difficulty of finding a good babysitter and about buying reusable produce bags online. Jen tried to pay attention, but her mind kept going back to the man. She imagined him in the parking garage, slinking around until he caught one of the pigeons. Or maybe he tamed them, somehow.
In her memory, Jen compared the man’s face to her brother’s high school portrait, which still perched on a shelf in her parent’s house. She’d never known that version of her brother, the teenager in a nice sweater. By the time she was old enough to register his existence, he was already guzzling beer in a pick-up truck behind the liquor store.
When lunch was over, the man was still sitting outside with the hat. She stopped in front of him, and felt her friend’s confusion and reluctance as she too slowed, hands hovering at her purse strap.
“Where’s your pigeon?” Jen said to the man.
He looked up at her. “What pigeon?”
A faded copy of Rob’s voice echoed in her head. She could hear him when she picked up the phone, saying, “Hello? Jen?” Always the same greeting, “Hello? Jen?”
For a while, after she quit answering, Rob called every night. Then the phone calls had stopped.
She dug in her jacket for change to give the man. Her fingers touched a crumpled $10 bill, but she needed that for parking. She shook her head and moved on.
Rob was still alive, she thought. He was probably fine.
As she passed the river, the wind came in from the ocean and flowed into the streets, and she and her friend parted ways. In the parking garage, the pigeons were squeezed between the long wires that had been installed to keep them from perching above the cars. They didn’t seem to mind.
She remembered how once, on a trip to Paris, she’d come out of a metro station to see a dead pigeon lying in her path. Blood had bloomed from the bird’s head the color of scarlet geraniums. She’d wanted to stop and look at the pigeon, but her boyfriend had been in a hurry. The crowd had flowed around them with the deliberate blindness of city people, so she too had hurried on .
To this day, when she thought of that trip, she remembered the pigeon. She regretted that she moved on so easily, and for no other reason than her boyfriend wanted to keep walking. “Don’t be so morbid,” he’d said, and she’d been taken aback—Was that what she was being? It had felt satisfying to look at the pigeon. It had felt honest. Even now, all these years later, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she should have stopped there on that teeming street and looked at the pigeon. She should have stood there for as long as was necessary.